An interesting post from Elizabeth Spann Craig has got me thinking about how surprising fictional characters can be. In her post Craig makes the point that there are several ways in which authors can make their characters more surprising and therefore richer. She’s right. Characters who surprise us in some way can add to a story. Of course, as with any other aspect of a novel, one has to be careful with this strategy. A character who’s surprising in an implausible way pulls the reader right out of the story. But adding that sort of depth to a character, even if it’s not the protagonist, can make a story all the more absorbing.
In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary Miss Lemon asks him to investigate some strange goings-on at the student hostel that her sister manages. Poirot is surprised that Miss Lemon even has a sister and that alone – thinking of Miss Lemon as actually having a family – gives him a bit of pause. When one of the hostel residents Celia Austin confesses to a lot of the strange things that have happened, everyone thinks the matter is settled. But then two nights later Celia dies, an apparent suicide. It’s soon proven to be murder though and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who was responsible. Part of the murder investigation involves searches of the residents’ belongings, and when the inspector and his team conduct those searches they find out some surprising things about some of the other people who live in the hostel.
In Camilla Läckberg’s The Hidden Child, crime writer Erica Falck is sorting through her parents’ things after their deaths. She comes upon a Nazi medal that completely takes her by surprise. Certainly no-one in her family had given any hint that there might have been a connection to the Nazi regime. This discovery sheds a whole new light on Falck’s parents so Falck visits retired historian Erik Frankel, hoping that he’ll be able to tell her more about that period of the local history. Two days after that visit Frankel is murdered. It’s soon clear that someone in the present day doesn’t want the town’s history to be unearthed. Falck’s husband police officer Patrik Hedström gets involved in the murder investigation even though he’s supposed to be on paternity leave and in her own way Falck investigates too. In the end they find the connection between the case they’re looking into and World War II-era events.
Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish introduces us to Absaroka County, Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire. When the body of a local young man Cody Pritchard is discovered not far from the town of Durant, Longmire and his deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti begin to investigate. Pritchard is one of three young men who were convicted two years earlier of the brutal gang-rape of sixteen-year-old Melissa Little Bird. They’ve recently been released from prison, so a logical possibility is that someone in Melissa’s family is taking revenge. Melissa’s uncle, who also happens to be Longmire’s best friend, is Henry Standing Bear. Sometimes called The Bear, he owns The Red Pony, a local bar/restaurant. In part because he and Longmire are friends and in part because of his own family’s possible involvement in this case, The Bear takes an interest in the investigation and helps Longmire in several important ways. But even though he and Longmire have been friends for a long time, he’s still able to surprise the sheriff. For instance, Longmire has the unpleasant duty of asking his best friend where he was on the night of Cody Pritchard’s murder. That’s when he finds out that The Bear is having a relationship with his protégée and bartender Dena Many Camps. The fact of that relationship doesn’t affect the outcome of the novel but it’s a surprising side to Henry Standing Bear’s character and to Dena Many Camps’ character since she can basically have her choice of partners.
In Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche we meet Saskatoon PI Russell Quant. Although Quant’s not in a long-term relationship when the series begins, he does have a circle of trusted friends, neighbours and co-workers. His next-door-neighbour is Sereena Orion Smith, who never fails to surprise Quant. She’s an enigmatic character to begin with and as we learn bits and pieces of her backstory she becomes richer and more interesting. For instance in Flight of Aquavit, Quant investigates a case of blackmail that later turns into murder. At one point in the novel he travels to New York to follow up on an important lead and Smith, who has business of her own there, goes along. They stay at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel where to Quant’s surprise, Smith already seems to be known – by another name. He doesn’t get much of a satisfactory explanation and I don’t think it’s spoiling the novel to say that this aspect of Smith’s character isn’t really a major key to the plot. But Bidulka follows that thread – Sereena Orion Smith’s story – in later novels. The fact that she is a surprising character adds to her appeal.
There’s also a surprising character in Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. Stephanie Anderson is a beginning psychiatrist who lives and works in Dunedin. For the last seventeen years she’s been trying to put her life back together after the abduction of her four-year-old sister Gemma. She hasn’t really ‘gotten over it,’ because one doesn’t. But she has made a life for herself. Then one of her patients Elizabeth Clark tells her a story that’s eerily similar to Anderson’s own. Clark’s younger sister Gracie was also abducted and like Gemma Anderson’s case, no body was ever found, nor was there any evidence of the perpetrator. When Anderson hears this story, she decides to try to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who was responsible for the abductions. So she journeys from Dunedin to her home town of Wanaka to try to look for answers. Along the way she meets Dan, who makes his living as a hunting guide. Although she finds him attractive, Anderson isn’t much interested at all in hunting/survival so when he invites her for a hunting trip, she doesn’t think much of the idea. But then she changes her mind and agrees to go out in the bush for a few days. She goes to Dan’s house to learn how to shoot and is completely surprised to find that he’s not all what she thought he was. Here’s just a bit of a conversation they have when he invites her to stay for dinner:
‘‘Wine, please. White wine?’ [Anderson]
‘I can manage both colours. Types as well. So. What type of white?’
He’s grinning again. She sees he’s teasing her.
‘Pinot gris?’ Huh, I guarantee he hasn’t got that.
‘Uh, yes. Thanks.’
He opens a bottle, fills a glass and hands it to her. ‘I believe I’m making progress.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I hope that I’m adequately demonstrating to you that all hunters aren’t blokey yobbos.’
‘I didn’t say they were.’
‘You didn’t actually say it, no.’’
Part of the interest in this novel is the way in which Anderson finds that Dan is a much richer character than she’d thought.
And then there’s Rajiv Patel, whom we meet in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Patel is filling in for his uncle, who owns and manages a Bangkok bookshop but has been sidelined by a heart attack. That’s how Patel meets PI Jayne Keeney, who enjoys reading, especially crime fiction (How can you not like that in a protagonist? ;-) ). Patel and Keeney begin seeing each other, although not seriously at first. Then, Keeney is hired by Queensland farmer Jim Delbeck to find out the truth about his daughter Maryanne’s death. Maryanne Delbeck was a volunteer at a child care facility/orphanage in Pattaya when she jumped (or fell, or was pushed) from the roof of the building where she was living. Delbeck doesn’t think his daughter committed suicide despite what the official reports say, so he wants Keeney to investigate. She agrees and travels to Pattaya. Throughout the case Patel proves surprisingly helpful in a number of ways and Keeney has to re-think her entire relationship with him and her view of her work. And in the end – no, I’m not going to spoil it for you. Let’s just say Patel really manages to surprise Keeney. If you’re reading this, Angela, I just love that scene!
Characters who surprise the reader can add some real interest to a novel. And when they also surprise the writer (and yes, that happens), they can keep a story or series fresh. Which characters have surprised you? If you’re a writer, do your characters ever surprise you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Chicago.